Thursday, February 21, 2014 – A shy, cute, five-foot tall twenty-something took the stage at King Avenue 5. The room was mostly empty—it was 11 pm (a “school night” for this working-class community) as this wiry young lady took the stage after downing 3 or 4 beers and had the liquid courage to perform onstage for her first open mic.
A few hangers-on were still peppered throughout the room with their devil-may-care attitude as this young lady grabbed a stool, music stand and dusty guitar and sat down with a lyric book. She paged through a few sheets, found a song, and belted out the tune with angry power chords that sounded more like Nirvana than folksy acoustic. Her tempo was sporadic: fast, then slower, then fast again. She unleashed a lyric with an angry howl (“Another one—down the road!”), her barbaric yawp probably getting more approval from hound dogs in the area than patrons at the bar.
I sat in the back of the room and tried to enjoy this “music” but it was difficult. The guitar playing was rough—her chords melded together like a cacophony of angry steel—and her singing complemented this scratchy sound. Her mild buzz made the whole experience even harder to enjoy for this self-proclaimed musical snob. “This chick should get a day job—and never quit—” I thought to myself, trying to admire her courage and at the same time discourage her from ever doing it again.
This young woman – Jacquie – made a habit of coming to open mic but this was the first time I ever heard her perform. [Hopefully it would be my last.] She was cute and awful sweet, but music didn’t seem to suit her. Perhaps she could entertain other options, such as poetry or literature? Something a little more quiet, perhaps?
A few weeks later Jacquie approached me and said: “I hear you teach; can you give me guitar lessons?” I joyfully obliged—I admired anyone who’s willing to improve her craft.
Not that I was a guru on guitar—it’s technically my third instrument and there are far more qualified people than myself to give Jacquie lessons—but I knew a few things that could help her along her journey, so I took the gig. We got together the following Monday, worked through the basics during that first session and had a wonderful time in the process. Perhaps there was some hope for her after all?
Jacquie was very dedicated: polite, punctual and joyful. She also worked very hard. She was penning new songs and needed some assistance with song structure and chord arrangements. This was my strength, so it was a perfect fit for both of us.
Monday, May 12, 2014. Jacquie improved tremendously in a few months’ time. Her guitar playing became smoother and more complex, her quirky voice became refined and her stage presence evolved rapidly. In less than two months she grew from playing on a stool while staring shyly at a music stand to facing her audience, standing, and playing like a pro. Everyone who’d watched her transformation was in shock—she evolved way beyond the scope of anyone who’d started a similar journey around the same time. Jacquie had surpassed them all.
February 19, 2015: We continued lessons for about a year when I realized Jacquie had amassed such an admirable collection of songs that I offered to record them for her. [I have a small studio in my apartment, so we embarked on the process for posterity.] She came in, played guitar, harmonica and sang lead/backing vocals while I did the rest: piano, drums, keys, percussion. We brought in Derek Collins on backing vocals and Chris Shaw on fiddle, and the recording process was officially underway.
During this time Jacquie evolved in another way: from guitar student to friend. She had shared with me some details of her personal life, the most tragic being the murder of her father during a botched burglary in her hometown of Alliance, OH. This took place a year prior to meeting her and obviously the wound was very deep. But one could hardly tell by talking to her that she recently buried her father—you’d think a profound melancholy would follow her like a black cloud, but this wasn’t the case. She handled the tragedy with unfathomable grace—finding the “sweet things” beyond the tragedy and celebrating its dark embrace.
Jacquie had other family drama that would even make Jerry Springer roll his eyes in disgust. Family ties can be a big burden to artists—they can bind the human soul in ways that destroy creativity. In certain families the artist is the outlier who is not only misunderstood but mistreated. When it comes to safeguarding family narratives, the artist can prove to be its greatest threat.
Jacquie was fighting two battles when I met her: one from her murdered father and the other from a fractured family dynamic. Then she encountered a third: the death of her stepfather in June. Both father and stepfather were deceased in three years time; and she recently turned 30. How she managed to get out of bed some days is nothing short of a miracle. I knew these series of tragedies furthered her resolve; this made the record all the more meaningful for both of us. We recorded these songs as a form of healing.
We finished the EP very quickly. Both she and I were devoted to getting this project done as quickly as possible. Creativity can be fleeting, after all—it’s best to strike when it happens. The EP, “Let Down Your Umbrella,” is a lovely collection of six songs on various themes: love, loss and hope. My favorite is “Sweet Things”—which has brilliant violin work from Chris Shaw. “Sweet Things” is about remembering the good when the bad seems to weigh you down. Since Jacquie has had an overdose of bad, it’s inspiring to hear her sing: “And I just / Have to / Accept the way it is.”
July 16, 2015: We celebrated the release of her debut EP at Shrunken Head to a standing-room-only crowd of raucous well-wishers. Jacquie fronted a five-piece band: Derek Collins on bass/backing vocals; Mike Schiller on percussion; Jack Doran on keys; and yours truly behind the kit. Unfortunately no member of her family was in attendance—even her local ties didn’t bother to make an appearance. She shared this with me an hour before the show. I told her: “We—the band and the bar full of your friends—will be your family tonight.”
We hit the stage at 10pm and Jacquie was on fire. The crowd adored her. She told stories, played harmonica, dazzled on guitar and sang with a fire and passion that emanated from every sweaty pore. During her single, “Road”—that drunken ditty she first played at open mic—the crowd erupted into a roar during its decrescendo. Jacquie Sanborn was in complete control. She played every song off the EP, sold dozens of copies and had the place buzzing long after the last person left the bar. In fact, she was such a rock star that the following day I encountered a fellow musician who said: “Look! It’s Pete Vogel! Jacquie Sanborn’s drummer!”
Some people don’t believe in miracles, and I can certainly understand why. Some are just too rational or logical to see this subtle, invisible force in our lives. I get that. For the past 18 months I’ve spent a good deal of time with Jacquie Sanborn. I have no choice but to believe in miracles, because I know one. I imagine that if you spent some time with her, she might change your mind as well.